by Heather Zorn, P.A.S.

The word “free radicals” and “oxidative stress” get tossed around a lot these, but do we really know what it means?  Breakthroughs in science won’t mean much to the average person unless they understand them.

Free radicals are produced during regular biochemical reactions that involve oxygen, a perfect example being exercise.  Biochemical reactions that involve oxygen can produce free radicals. Simplistically put, a free radical is a molecule that is missing an electron.  Without that electron to complete it, it is unstable, very reactive and can attack other structures in attempt to steal an electron and restore its own stability.  Oxidative stress simply refers to the free radicals that are produced during biochemical reactions involving oxygen.

So, what causes the production of free radicals, and therefore oxidative stress?  It doesn’t necessarily come from sinister sources as you would expect.  Sure, pollution, toxins, vaccines, and illness can all cause oxidative stress, but did you know that the horse’s body breaking down proteins and carbs can also naturally produce free radicals?  Exercise causes the production of free radicals, especially overtraining or intense workouts that are beyond a horse’s current athletic ability.  Essentially, anything that stresses the body’s organs internally can be considered to the horse, oxidative stress.

Thankfully, the body is well equipped to deal with oxidative stress and protect against free radicals roaming and causing too much damage to internal structures.   A horse’s cells have an internal enzyme antioxidant system that renders the free radicals harmless.  Think of it as a built-in protection device.

Antioxidant systems are directly linked to the normal production levels of free radicals.  Each horse is different in measuring oxidative stress, but your big, sensitive thoroughbred that may find everything spooky, most likely has a stronger antioxidant system because he naturally has more oxidative stress then the quiet Quarter Horse who just goes about his day.  However, when a horse’s activity level increases, such as in training, showing, endurance; and also during a stress increase, such as trailering, change in routine, new barn, showing, there is a lag in the natural antioxidant protection system before it can catch up to handle the new demands.  It is during these times that supplemental antioxidants are so important to help the body compensate with the free radicals before they do damage internally.

So, where do antioxidants come from?  A simple answer is food; fruits and vegetables are incredible sources of antioxidants that the horse can naturally use to protect itself against oxidative stress and free radicals.   Berries, specifically blueberries, are among the top ranked antioxidant-rich foods.  Many fruits contain high antioxidants, including apples.  Surprisingly enough, some grains (oats and barley) are also relatively high in antioxidants. Vitamin E ranks one of the best supplements on the market.  (Remember that Vit E is fat soluble and requires a liquid fat source to be recognized and absorbed by the body, so check the label on any capsules to be certain they contain a fat source.)

Consider the levels of oxidative stress that your horse may be experiencing and add antioxidants to his diet to help protect his body against the damaging effects.

Animal Nutrition Solutions Equine and Canine Consulting Services is a company committed to consumer education and improving the health of your dogs and horses. Our blog is here to provide you with quick access to nutritional information, and our products were created in the interest your dog and horse’s best health. Our  supplements are designed to provide the nutrition lacking in a proper diet, without the unnecessary additives, chemicals, and by-products found in most other supplementation products.